So I was in a meeting, one of those regular weekly meetings, and I was one of two women in the room. I had a to-do list that stretched all the way down a yellow legal pad, and I was cherishing a vision of leisurely, peaceful evening, with time to curl up with my daughter over Dinosaur’s Binket.
Meanwhile, the blowhard was explaining why it is VERY VERY important to hire only people with a move-fast, take-no-prisoners style for web coverage. “It’s dog-eat-dog out there, man, and we want to be the alpha dog,” he said seriously. It was another in a long string of cliché-ridden sentences that spoke more to the fact that he was trying to impress the executives in the room with his “vision” than accomplish what actually needed to be accomplished at the meeting. Irritated, I said little, though it was I who worked out the details of what needed to be done to actually hire that person later. He ultimately got a lot of the credit for building the web site and continues to work his way up in the corporate world.
Meanwhile, I stepped off the career ladder to work at home and be with my kids.
I rebuilt this scene from memory, so the quote isn’t strictly accurate, but the gist is. The tech guy was one I worked with a few years ago and though he wasn’t really a bad guy, he always, well, acted like a man. Specifically, a man trying to get ahead in a corporate environment.
It can be difficult to talk about the discomfort that some – or many – women still feel in the corporate world without resorting to stereotypes. So, forgive me if the limits of language mean that I have to resort to some.
Not talking about those issues at all would mean that we’re never going to address the extra stress and discomfort that many women feel in corporate settings, where the qualities and priorities that we think of as typically male still dominate.
“Corporate culture, work culture is very oriented to a competitive, all-or-nothing kind of environment,” – stereotypically male, says Angel Kwolek-Folland, a professor of history and women’s studies at the University of Florida who has written about women and business. “There’s an expectation that people will not play by the rules, that people will cut a throat to get where they want to get.”
In the 1970s and 80s, she says, many people believed that if companies merely put women in the pipeline, the gender balance issue would sort itself out. That just hasn’t happened.
Women who can’t or won’t adapt either live with the stress of the mismatch, or drop out. The numbers bear out the fact that women still just don’t fit in all that well to corporate America. According to Catalyst, an advocacy and research organization for women in the workplace, in the Fortune 500, women held only 16.1% of board director seats, 14.1% of Executive Officer positions, and 7.5% of Executive Officer top-earner positions.
More documentation? In a report title Damned If You Do, Doomed If You Don’t, researchers found that “when women act in ways that are consistent with gender stereotypes, they are viewed as less competent leaders. When women act in ways that are inconsistent with such stereotypes, they are considered unfeminine.”
The cultural mismatch between women and corporate America becomes even more apparent after you leave a company to strike out on your own, as a freelancer or as an entrepreneur, as I did almost 10 years ago.
As a freelancer, you can create your own working environment. I think anyone looking at mine would say it has taken on a distinctly feminine cast.
Though I work more than full-time hours, my children and my home regularly rise to the top of my to-do list. I pick them up from school most days and volunteer at their Brownie meetings. I don’t need to hide the fact that my number-one priority on some days is planning a birthday party.
But those are the obvious things. What’s less obvious is the different style of working I adopted once I was no longer spending time thinking about getting ahead – and whether I needed to step on other people on the way up.
My image now matters a lot less than the bare fact of my work product. I don’t usually worry about sounding smart in meetings. I don’t worry so much anymore about whether kindness might be seen as weakness. My chief purpose as a freelancer is usually to help my clients look good – versus, in a corporation, making myself look good so that I could advance.
My status as an outsider also allows me to feel free to have conversations with people that range far beyond business: in a corporate setting, those network-building moments are limited to special events or water cooler talk. I spend a lot of time on them. Drawing people out, personally – a skill that I think of as distinctly feminine – is often one of the most fruitful parts of my day, because it helps me figure out what a client needs and how I can help meet that need.
As a freelancer, I’ve also escaped the artificial time constraints of the corporate world, which are still, especially at the higher levels, geared around the idea of a working man and a stay-at-home spouse. Big travel demands, the idea that you need to put your best-foot-forward in a dry-cleaned suit, breakfast and dinner meetings (I was often stressed about getting there on time) … those are mostly memories to me now, and I am more productive for not having to worry about them.
Corporations miss out on a lot by clinging, perhaps unknowingly, to masculine culture mores. I don’t really know of any evidence that says those masculine qualities – ruthlessness, rule-breaking – are truly necessary to building a successful corporation.
What’s to say that a company built around stereotypically feminine characteristics couldn’t be just as successful? What would a corporation look like if it were built around the characteristics that we think of as feminine? Or, better yet, what would a corporation look like if it were built to be accepting of the qualities that we consider both feminine and masculine?
When Elaine and I started this side project, 200kfreelancer, our number-one goal was to build a company without stressing ourselves out. At some point, we talked about whether we wanted to pursue an angel investment. “Nah,” Elaine said. “Then we’d have to start working like men.”
Can we grow a company without working like men? We don’t know yet. But I would bet on us.